The Loss I Didn’t Have Words For

After two miscarriages I didn’t know how to grieve, poetry allowed me to ask: Who are you, who were you, who might you have been?

A cropped image of hands holding a flower with red wavy graphic and text behind.
Vanessa Saba

When you have a miscarriage, one thing that gets drilled into you fast is that miscarriage is common. According to the American Pregnancy Association, 10 to 25 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage. Those are just the ones we know about; many others happen too early to ever be detected. And the risk gets higher as you get older. Your friends, if you tell them about your miscarriage, will confirm how ordinary it is: “I had one,” someone will say. “We had two before we had our son.” “A neighbor’s aunt had four miscarriages and then four children!” “Meghan Markle had a miscarriage.” “Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan had three.”

The first time I miscarried, in December of 2020, I took pills so that my body would expel whatever wasn’t growing inside me. I bled too much too fast and came to in the emergency room, hooked up to someone else’s blood, while a sweet young doctor held my hand and told me the facts. It’s nothing you did. It happens so often.

Because I am a poet, I filter my experiences through lines of verse. Usually this is automatic, rather than for comfort. It’s not that I reach for them—they’re just there, rattling around in my head. When I came home from my post-miscarriage night in the hospital, the words that echoed were from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. In the second section of that poem, Eliot imagines an exchange between two Cockney-sounding women, one of whom has taken pills to end a pregnancy. On being accused of looking “antique” (at 31) for her returning husband:

I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.
(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)
The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same.

Weakly I wandered the house in sweatpants. It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, I thought. I felt let down by my doctor, who had been blasé when she sent me home with medication in the first place, noting that if I felt like I was bleeding too much I might want to head to the emergency room. The doctor said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same. I imagined myself toothless and decrepit at the age of 36.

When I had a second miscarriage nine months later, this past fall, I skipped the pills for a procedure called a D&C, for “dilation and curettage” (a “curette” is a surgical tool for scraping things out). This time I drifted off to sleep and woke up when it was over. I saw no blood. The closest thing to physical contact with whatever I had miscarried came in the form of an email a few days after the surgery, from a company my doctor had used for genetic testing of the “tissue”: “Dear Lindsay Kathleen,” the email said, “Your sample has been received and our lab is processing it.” I felt vaguely unwell, both mentally and physically, but otherwise it almost seemed like nothing had happened at all. It was particularly strange trying to figure out how to grieve while an ongoing, intensifying political debate about abortion was raging around me, to watch people argue in the news over whether what I’d lost qualified as a person. I didn’t—I don’t—believe it did. So what exactly was I grieving?

It’s terrible to question your own loss like this. Was it possible that I had had nothing, and therefore that I had lost nothing? I had told almost no one that I was pregnant, and I had known for only a short time. The relatively high probability that the pregnancy might disappear is, indeed, why it’s long been a norm not to tell anyone the good news until you’ve reached the end of your first trimester, after 12 weeks—so that you don’t have to un-tell it if the news goes bad. You just keep silent about the whole thing. But my miscarriages felt like major events to me: My life had almost continued on in a new way, and then it hadn’t. Somehow I’d had both life and death inside me, or something right on the knife-edge between life and death. Walking through a Colorado aspen grove in October, a week or so after the second miscarriage, I began to crave some kind of marker for the miscarriages: a tattoo, a sign, a set or two of brown initials scratched on the trees’ tall white trunks.

This desire to commemorate is part of where poetry comes from. An elegy marks the life of a person who is no longer; a sonnet stands, in the words of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as a “moment’s monument.” I wrote a poem after each miscarriage, and uncharacteristically I dated them so that I wouldn’t forget their significance. The beauty of poetry is that it records what is otherwise ephemeral.

Poetry also gives us language for what is both widely shared and highly individual. When you have a miscarriage—this is often true about grief—you learn that your deepest and most primal impulses are generally not unique at all. You’re going to feel like it’s your fault, that first kind doctor said, but it’s not. Of course I knew it wasn’t my fault. Of course I felt like it was absolutely my fault. I caught myself thinking about the word miscarriage like misplace or mislay: miscarriage as in, you carried it wrong and it all went awry. But online, I found similar thoughts about the word. (It was suggested that I think of pregnancy loss instead.) I wanted to read about my specific but ordinary experience, not just on Google but in verse. And, for the love of God, I didn’t want the only poem ringing in my head to be the one from Eliot.

And so I set off looking for the miscarriage poems I knew had to be out there. From the 17th century, I found Lady Mary Carey’s “Upon Ye Sight of My Abortive Birth Ye 31st of December 1657,” which laments the loss of a “little Embrio; voyd of life, and feature” and hints at the peril of childbirth at the time: The loss, Carey notes, is the end of her seventh pregnancy, but just two of her children remain living. In Carey’s poem, I glimpsed the long and heartbreaking poetic tradition of which I might be part.

I was also struck by Lucille Clifton’s 1987 “the lost baby poem,” a dark and icy lament, a record of racialized poverty, and a resolute pledge to keep living. In it, Clifton addresses the titular “lost baby” as a way to talk about her present experience, drawing strength from the connection:

you would have been born into winter
in the year of the disconnected gas
and no car    
[…]   
if you were here i could tell you these
and some other things

And reading Sharon Olds’s 1984 poem “Miscarriage,” I felt deeply satisfied by her inclusion of the gritty material details. It begins:

When I was a month pregnant, the great
clots of blood appeared in the pale
green swaying water of the toilet.
Dark red like black in the salty
translucent brine, like forms of life
appearing, jelly-fish with the clear-cut
shapes of fungi.

Later, Olds wrote two more miscarriage poems: “To Our Miscarried One, Age Thirty Now,” and “To Our Miscarried One, Age Fifty Now.” She was still thinking about what she’d lost, but in these poems the visceral realism drops away, replaced by softer, wistful addresses to the adult that child would have become and whom she will never meet.

Though these and other miscarriage poems exist—readers might look to contemporary work by Dorothea Lasky or Douglas Kearney—the poet and critic Sandeep Parmar argued in a Poetry magazine essay that miscarriage remains a “private and unseen loss near invisible or taboo” and that miscarriage poems represent only a “minor note in the canon of women’s writing.” I share her suspicion, but my own interpretation extends past this: I think that taboo is just part of the story, and that another part of it is that weird invisibility of the miscarriage experience, even to yourself. You tell yourself that these things happen, and you return to your living. Part of you wants to remember; part of you wants to let the loss dissolve like blood into water.

“Parliament Hill Fields,” a 1961 poem by Sylvia Plath, is about exactly this tension between commemorating and moving on. She addresses it to “you,” the miscarried one she lost in between her two children:

On this bald hill the new year hones its edge.
Faceless and pale as china
The round sky goes on minding its business.
Your absence is inconspicuous;
Nobody can tell what I lack.

But in the course of the poem, she enacts a trade-off: In order to return to her living child and her ongoing family life—the “lit house”—she must turn away from her loss, must let it disappear from her consciousness.

Your cry fades like the cry of a gnat.
I lose sight of you on your blind journey,
While the heath grass glitters and the spindling rivulets
Unspool and spend themselves. My mind runs with them,

Pooling in heel-prints, fumbling pebble and stem.
The day empties its images
Like a cup or a room. The moon’s crook whitens,
Thin as the skin seaming a scar.
Now, on the nursery wall,

The blue night plants, the little pale blue hill
In your sister’s birthday picture start to glow.
The orange pompons, the Egyptian papyrus
Light up. Each rabbit-eared
Blue shrub behind the glass

Exhales an indigo nimbus,
A sort of cellophane balloon.
The old dregs, the old difficulties take me to wife.
Gulls stiffen to their chill vigil in the drafty half-light;
I enter the lit house.

At the heart of Plath’s poem—and Clifton’s, and Olds’s two poems “To Our Miscarried One”—is the impulse to address the lost one even as the loss fades. And they use the perfect poetic tool to do so: “apostrophe,” or an address to a nonpresent entity. (It’s not the same as the punctuation.) I realized, reading these poems, that this was what I’d wanted in the first place—a way to ask: Who are you, who were you, who might you have been? Do you even exist?

At first using you for my loss didn’t feel right, personally or politically. But poetry allowed me to reach for a “you” that was ambiguous, even if only to let it go. And in doing so, I—like the miscarriage-poem writers before me—could feel this loss as real and significant.

To say “you” to a lost thing in a poem is to acknowledge the thing, to keep it around for as long as it needs to be around, and to bid it goodbye when you’re ready—even if you have no idea what that thing is, or whether it has ever existed at all.